Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelson Ellis, Viola Davis
Directed by: Tate Taylor (“The Help”)
Written by: Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”) and John-Henry Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”)
When making a biopic about a musician, filmmakers have two major options. One is to hire an actor to both act as the artist and to do their own singing, a feat that got Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar nomination for his role as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line” and won Jamie Foxx an Oscar for his role as Ray Charles in “Ray.” The other option is to hire an actor to just play the character parts and lip-synch to the original recordings of the artist. It’s a risky and potentially distracting move, and certainly one that needs to be backed up with a dynamite acting performance. Luckily for director Tate Taylor, Chadwick Boseman delivers exactly that in his portrayal of the hardest working man in show business, James Brown, in “Get on Up.”
If Boseman was seen as a relative unknown in taking on the role of Jackie Robinson in last year’s “42,” his performance in “Get on Up” will quickly erase his anonymity. Boseman is outstanding as the larger-than-life James Brown and completely embodies everything from his speaking voice to his swagger. Where Boseman really shines is during the performance scenes. Boseman is electric in scenes where Brown is performing; constantly moving, dancing, sweating, and putting everything he has into the performance. Though as previously mentioned, Boseman is lip-synching throughout the entire film, there are only a few moments where it is truly jarring. He’s also able to mine some comedic moments from the film, though those don’t quite land as much as they should.
Beyond Boseman’s performance, “Get on Up” is a pretty comprehensive (sometimes to a fault) look at Brown’s life and career. Brown’s music is present throughout the whole film, giving the picture its pulse and sounding as good as it ever has. The issue, however, comes with the direction. Taylor attempts to cram a ton of content into this biopic and ends up with mixed results. It’s a film that comes in at over two hours, and starts to feel redundant with some of the performances by the end. It’s also told in a non-linear fashion, with stories and moments from Brown’s life ping-ponging chronologically in a way that doesn’t serve any real narrative purpose.
As a look back a James Brown’s life, storied career, and his well-earned place in music lore “Get On Up” is a successful endeavor. Still, somehow, it all feels somewhat surface. Taylor flirts with the idea of racism during the rise of Brown, but never really goes anywhere with it other than a show that happened shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Despite the occasional narrative shortcomings, “Get on Up” is a worthy journey into music history, and one that features a fantastic performance from a quickly rising actor poised for a massive breakout.